Minneapolis shares Hennepin County with dozens of municipalities, but an ambitious study finds little common ground between the city and its suburbs in the handling of domestic abuse cases in the courts.
Most days, in at least one of Hennepin County’s downtown Minneapolis courtrooms, there sits a person scribbling notes onto a piece of paper fixed to a red clipboard.
These are the trained volunteers of the court monitoring organization WATCH, and their job is to scrutinize the handling of domestic abuse cases. Their observations are the raw material that will be analyzed by the organization to spot patterns and advocate for system-wide reforms. WATCH has been at it for nearly 20 years.
In August 2009, WATCH sent its volunteers to Hennepin County’s suburban courts at Brookdale, Ridgedale and Southdale. It was the launch of an ambitious 21-month project — their first ever outside the downtown courts. WATCH volunteers created detailed reports on close to 1,500 domestic abuse cases they observed first-hand.
So what did they find?
Most notably they found significant disparities between Minneapolis courts and suburban courts all the way down the line.
Let’s start with “non-enhanceable offenses.” In Minnesota, domestic assault is an offense that can be upgraded — or enhanced — if the abuser is charged for the same kind of offense a second and third time (from misdemeanor to gross misdemeanor to felony). A non-enhanceable offense in a domestic abuse case would be something like disorderly conduct.
In the suburban courts a person charged with domestic abuse was much more likely to wind up with disorderly conduct on their record. Of the suburban court cases monitored by WATCH, just 30 percent ended in an enhanceable offense. In Minneapolis for that same period, it was 70 percent.
“What we know about domestic violence is that it escalates. You must have swift consequences on the front end to prevent future assaults from happening,” says WATCH Executive Director Marna Anderson. “When the system downplays those first couple of assaults it’s doing a disservice to everybody — the abuser is not getting the services he needs to stop abusing and the victim is not getting the attention she needs so that she can be safe.”
The conviction rate in non-felony domestic abuse cases also differed from city to suburb. It was 56 percent in the suburbs, according to WATCH, and 66 percent in Minneapolis for the same period.
Then there is something called the pre-sentence investigation (PSI). In Minnesota, if a person is convicted of a domestic abuse-related offense, the law urges a special investigation to be completed before sentencing. This is the PSI and here’s how it goes down: The defendant is evaluated and the victim’s suffering assessed. The security of the victim is gauged too, as is the defendant’s willingness to go through special programming for abusers. Criminal history and probation records are thrown into the mix too.
With all of this, theoretically, a judge can make a sound sentencing decision with full consideration of the victim’s needs and the abuser’s history and state of mind.
In Minneapolis’ domestic violence court, a period of one week is allowed for the completion of a PSI. In the suburbs that window is just four hours.
The last major discrepancy is a mouthful: continuances for dismissal. It’s simple, really. A deal is made between the city and the defendant without the intervention of a judge. Terms are agreed to, a fine is paid and judgment is deferred. There’s no probation and if in a year’s time the defendant has managed to stay out of trouble, the charge is dropped.
There are a few holes in this arrangement. If a defendant enters into a continuance for dismissal agreement and winds up in some other suburban court with a domestic abuse charge, there is no guarantee the original charge will be brought to the judge’s attention. And word of the new offense may not make it back to the city prosecutor who negotiated a resolution to the first case.
“The message that we’re sending the victim is this wasn’t that big of a deal and you’re also telling that to the defendant,” says Anderson.
Advocates who closely monitor domestic abuse cases point to another issue with these dismissals. “When I review reports I see new offenses coming in a year-and-a week or a-year-and-a-month on a pretty routine basis,” says Laura Lind of Home Free, an organization that provides victim support in Hennepin County.
In the suburbs only 15 percent of the cases WATCH monitored were resolved with a continuance for dismissal — that’s just 144 cases. But in Minneapolis over the same period, less than 1 percent of cases were resolved this way. That’s just seven cases.
WATCH made a deliberate decision not to point fingers at individual municipalities or prosecutors and only crunched numbers in terms of suburbs versus downtown, writing “it is easy to focus on individual jurisdictions and disregard the bigger picture.”
But what if those 144 cases came from only a handful of cities; can you really say it’s a problem with the suburbs?
There is only one way to answer this question: do what WATCH did not and break it all down by municipality. Using data I obtained from the 4th District Court, which covers Hennepin County, I was able to look at all 3,272 non-felony domestic abuse cases that reached some resolution or another in 2010.
Of the 2,075 non-felony domestic abuse cases in the suburban courts to be resolved in 2010, 26 percent ended with a continuance for dismissal. Of the 1,187 resolved downtown, continuance for dismissal was just 9 percent of total dispositions.
In short: it’s a suburban problem — but there are also major discrepancies between suburban cities.
So which cities are driving the continuance for dismissal numbers?
I looked at each city with more than 50 resolved domestic abuse cases in 2010. Here they are, ranked by the percentage of total cases to end with a continuance for dismissal:
|New Hope|| 36%
|St. Louis Park|| 34%
|Brooklyn Park|| 32%
At the bottom of the list were Bloomington (9 percent) and Minnetonka (8 percent). More on these two cities — and on Champlin, which tops the list — in a minute.
Brooklyn Park had the single largest number of continuances for dismissal at 133 — beating Minneapolis’ 107 and tripling the next highest suburban city count: St. Louis Park at 46.
City Manager Jamie Verbrugge says there have been talks between Brookyn Park’s Chief of Police Michael Davis, who Verbrugge says is passionate about the issue, and prosecutor Roger Fellows, who the city has contracted with for more than 20 years. “There’s a desire to see less of these settlements. There’s a concern that they are not providing encouragement for the behavior change we’re looking for.”
So what’s the incentive for prosecutors to push continuance for dismissals?
There are all kinds of ways to answer this question. Sometimes it may simply be the right thing to do. But why such extreme discrepancies from city to city?
There are two other factors that cannot be ignored in this era of budget cuts to the courts. First, a continuance for dismissal arrangement leaves a light footprint on the court calendar — it’s negotiated by the prosecutor and defense attorney and requires little of the court’s time. Probation officers are not part of the deal and neither is the pre-sentence investigation.
The other factor cannot be easily proven — but neither can it be ignored in these times of fiscal desperation. It’s the financial incentive. Whatever money is paid by the offender to earn a continuance for dismissal goes right back to the city — and that can be as much as $1,000. Even at just a few hundred dollars, cities with strained or declining revenue sources can generate tens of thousands of dollars through continuances for dismissal.
OK, let’s back up. What are the major differences between a suburban city like Brooklyn Park and Minneapolis in their approach to domestic abuse cases?
There is a big one. All but three Hennepin County municipalities contract out for prosecutor services.
The three cities that pay to maintain a city attorney’s office with full-time prosecutors and support staff are Minneapolis, Bloomington and Minnetonka.
In Minneapolis, the city attorney’s office has a staff of more than 100 attorneys divided into civil and criminal divisions. Within the criminal division, Minneapolis has its own domestic abuse team, which operates in a designated domestic abuse court.
In most of the county’s municipalities this level of special attention is difficult. A single attorney or firm will bid for a contract to prosecute whatever criminal cases come up (short of felonies, which are handled by the county).
How can suburban cities replicate some of this special attention to domestic abuse cases?
One option is for law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to work with one of the four domestic abuse victims’ advocacy groups operating in the county — Cornerstone, Home Free, Project Peace and the Sojourner Project. Together they provide some level of advocacy service to every city in Hennepin except for Champlin, which has never opted for a relationship with any of these service providers.
“We’re certainly sensitive to the domestic violence issue,” says Champlin City Administrator Bret Heitkamp. “But we’ve lost $867,000 in funding since 2002 and our city council has taken the position that social services should not necessarily be the focus of local government and that Hennepin County is in a better position to provide those services.”
Home Free has full-service contracts with Golden Valley, New Hope and Plymouth and a less robust contract with Brooklyn Park. The organization also provides minimal services with no contract to 12 rural municipalities in the county.
Full-service, as explained by Lind of Home Free, looks like this: The police department sends word whenever they encounter a domestic abuse situation. An advocate gets in touch with the victim to assess their security and immediate needs. If it’s an order for protection or a quick move to a shelter, they help with that. They will also be with the victim throughout the court process. And they’ll be a liaison between the victim and the prosecutor, meeting with the prosecutor as needed so the victim can continue with work, school, and home life — only appearing in court when they absolutely must.
What happens to victims in cities without fully funded contracts with the organization? “If a victim in Greenfield needs an order for protection and she’s referred to our program, we’ll get an advocate on the phone with her if one is available. If not, she’ll need to go downtown. She won’t be contacted before each court date like a victim in Plymouth would be. She’ll get her emergency needs met but we won’t be able to do the follow-up support that is so badly needed.” These organizations work with victims from beginning to end and it’s resource intensive.
If consistency is what’s missing, what’s the fix?
Domestic abuse cases are complicated. Overburdened courts and city prosecutors are rarely specialists. Domestic violence cases are squeezed in between bar fights and speeding tickets. The suburban courts have taken some important steps — like seeing to it that accused abusers and their alleged victims have the same judge. Reform advocates from WATCH at the county level to the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women at the state level agree that a shared approach in writing and using common language is a crucial first step.
That’s a step a few cities in Hennepin have taken in the form of a detailed prosecution plan for domestic violence, which can serve as a compass for contract prosecutors and could serve as a model for the majority of cities who do not have any such guiding document.
We’ll talk more about that in the next post in this series.
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